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File Formats

We see a lot of different file formats here at The Fiction Desk. Although our guidelines specify that submissions should all be in MS Word format (.doc or .docx), we do our best to open and read most document types that come our way. Sometimes it’s just not possible, and we have to ask writers to resubmit their story manuscript in an alternative format.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about file formats, so here’s a quick guide to the main document types, where they come from, and their pros and cons as submission formats.

When making a submission it’s important to always follow the publisher’s guidelines in terms of the file formats they can accept: after all, only they know which devices and software they have access to. Still, the following should provide you with some insight into why they make the choices they do, and what you can do if your preferred formats don’t match their requirements:

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  • .doc This was once the standard file used by MS Word, and the most common way to share text documents. It was replaced in 2007 by the .docx format (see below). These days, .doc files aren’t always quite as compatible or easy to open as .docx files, but are still fairly common. Use .docx if you possibly can — it’s a smaller, more versatile format — but if you’re running a pre-2007 version of MS Word you can still get by with .doc for the moment.
  • .docx Now the industry standard. Although primarily associated with Microsoft Word, it can be opened, edited and saved with a range of programs, including free suites like LibreOffice. Like the .doc format, it also has MS Word’s ’track changes’ functionality, which will come in handy when your work is accepted for publication and you need to collaborate with an editor, allowing you to see and comment on edits.
  • .docm This is a special version of the .docx file, used when the document contains macros (small apps within the document that can automate various tasks). Avoid using this format: macros are completely unnecessary in basic text documents like works of fiction, and are often used to transmit computer viruses.
  • .dot These are template files used by MS Word; for example, you might have a .dot file in your system that provides the basic layout and styles for your short stories. If you’re saving completed stories in .dot format, though, you’re probably getting into a muddle with your templates.
  • .gdoc This isn’t actually a file type at all: it’s a link to your file’s location on Google Drive. If you send somebody a .gdoc file outside of the Google ecosystem, the recipient won’t be able to open it. If your story is in Google Docs, you’ll need to save it to your computer as a .docx file before submitting. To do this, open your file in Google Docs, go to the File menu, and click ‘Download as > Microsoft Word (.docx)’.
  • .odt These files are the text version of the OpenDocument format. You’re most likely to come across .odt files if you’re using a free open source office suite like LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Like .docx, they have the ability to keep track of changes made during the editing process. They’re quite widely accepted but check first: not all devices can open them, and it’s usually best to save your file as .docx before making your submission.
  • .pages These files are created by Apple’s Pages software. They can only be opened on certain Apple devices, and even the different versions of Pages aren’t all compatible with each other. Awkward, professionally useless, and popular among people with no knowledge of computers, .pages is the Comic Sans of the file format world. Unless the market you’re submitting to says otherwise, avoid sending out work in .pages format. (The .pages format is lousy, but many people are happy writing with the program itself. If you’re using Pages, export the file as a Word .docx document before submitting.)
  • .pdf These files are intended for use with Adobe Reader: they’re usually used for sharing finished documents like digital versions of magazines or fliers, as well as contracts, forms, and other documents. Many programs can export .pdf files, and operating systems usually have a way of ‘printing’ your work to a .pdf file. So should you submit work in .pdf format? Many literary magazines and other publishers do allow it; others don’t. While .pdf files are easy to read on a wide range of devices, it’s not usually possible to reformat them. This means that the reader looking at your work won’t be able to change the font size or reflow the text if they’re using a smaller screen, or if the formatting is otherwise difficult to read. To stay on the safe side, it’s best to avoid sending out work in .pdf unless you’re specifically asked for it.
  • .rtf Relatively simple text documents, .rtf files can be read and written by most text editing programs. The formatting options are probably a little limited in terms of meeting submission guidelines for page layout, but at least you know that the reader should be able to open your file. Potentially useful as a last resort, if you really can’t manage to create a .docx file.
  • .scriv / .scrivx These files are created by the popular writing tool Scrivener. They’re for your work-in-progress, but not for submitting work. Export your finished story from Scrivener as a .docx file, and check it in Word before submitting.
  • .wps These documents are created by Microsoft Works, a basic office suite that was last released in 2007 and discontinued altogether in 2009. These days, .wps files are a nuisance to open, often needing special software to convert them to a readable format. Avoid submitting work in .wps format. (Tip: If you have a lot of old files in .wps format, your easiest option might be to download the free open-source office suite LibreOffice. LibreOffice can open .wps files, allowing you to read them and export them to a more modern and usable format.)

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That list should cover most of the basic file formats that you’re likely to come across or find yourself using for your text documents. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Always check the publisher’s requirements before submitting: only they know the exact range of devices and programs they have available to read your work.
  • The single best format to get accustomed to using is .docx. Although native to MS Word, many other programs can read and write this format, and it’s most publishers’ first choice.
  • If you really hate Microsoft, or are unable or unwilling to stump up the cash for MS Word, look into LibreOffice. It’s a free, fully featured office suite available on Windows, Linux, and Mac, and can work with .docx files as well as various other types including its own native .odt files. It can also be used for collaborative editing using tracked changes. (Sending a file with tracked changes between Word and LibreOffice can be buggy, but your editor might well have LibreOffice installed for when its needed. After all, it’s free and available on nearly all computers. Find out more at www.libreoffice.org)